This is a picture of my father and me, taken in the spring of 1960. He was not long home from a stint as a sergeant in the army, having the very good fortune to get out just before US involvement in Vietnam exploded, but also coming home very changed, very different from the patriotic young college graduate and husband who had enlisted because he believed in his country and his government. He came home permanently angry, and also a passionately outspoken liberal, much to the chagrin of his conservative Republican parents, who very nearly disowned him. They never really reconciled with him, in spite of the birth of me and then my brother three years later, and were still mostly estranged when my father killed himself at the age of 42, when they were in their late 60s.
At the time this picture was taken, he was working on his master’s degree in political science with a specialty in constitutional law, and also working as an intern for Dean Rusk. I assume that my mother was behind the camera – I wasn’t quite two years old yet, and while I do have memories from that age and even earlier, I don’t remember anything about this picture. It surprises me that I don’t look afraid, and that I’m almost leaning back on him in apparent trust, and that his arms are around me protectively. I guess I thought that his brokenness started earlier than maybe it did – or, much more likely I think looking back, it had already begun, but was still somewhat under control, at least for a couple more years.
When he died, I was 20, and we were barely speaking, living a couple hundred miles apart. I went to his memorial service a few days after his death, at the university where he had taught for so many years, and I looked numbly at dozens of strangers in the auditorium, strangers looking sad in varying degrees and some of them outright weeping, for someone I felt I didn’t know at all.
Very nearly 40 years later, I still don’t know. I still very much wish I did. I’ve reached a kind of peace with myself about it, but it took years and years to get here, and sometimes it’s still a shaky peace – but I’ll take it.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy. I wish things had been different for you. I wish I had even a few good memories I could share with my grown children, your grandchildren, all born long after you were gone. I hope that you found some kind of peace with your choices, at the end.